(Sean Whaley/Nevada News Bureau) – The state Assembly’s Democratic Caucus failed to disclose more than $120,000 in donations from its own members earlier this year, but a Democratic leader says they weren’t legally required to do so.
A dozen Assembly Democrats chipped in the funds in the first five months of this year, according to a review of the individual lawmakers’ campaign expenditure reports. But the donations weren’t disclosed by the caucus on its June 1 financial filing to the state.
Assembly Majority Leader John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas, said the donations were made to reimburse the caucus for salaries of legislators’ staff and to pay the legislators’ dues in the caucus.
“All we have to report is our contributions,” he said. “To be more transparent, we should report everything but we’re not required to do it by law.”
He cited a 1998 legal interpretation from the secretary of state that said that the donations count as reimbursements and aren’t contributions required to be reported by the caucus.
The Nevada News Bureau was not able to immediately obtain a copy of the interpretation.
Oceguera said he has decided to change that policy, effective immediately, to report expenses as well.
The initial explanation was questioned, however, by Nevada State Republican Party Chairman Mark Amodei, an attorney and former state Senator from Carson City.
When told Assembly Democrats have an interpretation from the secretary of state’s office that was the basis for their reporting decisions, Amodei said: “That statement bears no resemblance to the applicable statutes.”
Nevada revised statutes on campaign practices do not use the word reimbursement, he said.
“If it’s an expense, it’s an expense,” he said. “There is no ethics opinion out there that says reimbursements don’t count. This caucus does not have a real strong track record looking back at what has occurred in recent history, when you see what members have used their campaign funds for.”
Outgoing Assemblywoman Kathy McClain, D-Las Vegas, agreed earlier this year to make a $7,276 personal contribution to Safe Nest, a Las Vegas nonprofit supporting abused women, to cover the cost of the contribution she had made in 2009 to the Public Employees Retirement System from her campaign fund. The donation resolved a complaint filed with the secretary of state’s office that she inappropriately used campaign funds to pay for her Clark County retirement contributions while serving as a lawmaker.
Amodei said the real question is why the caucus felt the need to seek an advisory opinion on the issue in the first place.
Oceguera forwarded an email from Tuesday, a day before an inquiry was made about the caucus campaign report, saying he wants the operating expenses disclosed in the future. He directed staff to file an amended report for the second reporting period listing all operating expenses and to ensure future reports include the information as well. The filing deadline for the second report was Tuesday.
“Each caucus member has met the requirements for reporting as has the caucus,” Oceguera said. “However, I believe the caucus can do more, and should. We will file the amended reports quickly, beginning with an amendment to the October 26th report which I expect to have soon.
“I want to emphasize that are in full compliance, and always have been,” he said. “I believe we can go above and beyond that compliance in the public interest, and I’ve directed that we do so.”
Assemblyman James Settelmeyer, R-Gardnerville, said as a member of the Elections, Procedures, Ethics and Constitutional Amendments Committee for two sessions, he frequently heard calls for more openness in the reporting process.
“Unfortunately, it seems actions are much different than words,” he said.
Settelmeyer, who is running for a seat in the state Senate, said the Assembly Democratic Caucus reports signed by Oceguera clearly are incomplete.
“We’re all trying to be more transparent,” he said. “Obviously, even with the current rules we have, we lack some transparency.”
The campaign reports show that members of the Assembly Democratic caucus reported their caucus expenses on their campaign reports, but the expenses are not reflected on the caucus reports.
Oceguera, for example, reported three payments this year to the Assembly Democratic Caucus totaling more than $31,000 that were not reported on the caucus report. The payments were recorded on Oceguera’s campaign contribution and expense report filed June 1 as employee and miscellaneous expenses.
Assemblywoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, contributed $10,548 to the caucus according to her campaign contribution and expense report. Again, the expenditure by the candidate was not reported as a contribution by the caucus.
Ten other Assembly Democrats made similar payments identified as campaign expenses, all of which they identified on their reports but none of which were reported by the caucus.
The unreported contributions from lawmakers total more than $122,000.
The first 2010 caucus report did reflect nearly $110,000 in contributions from other individuals and entities, and was signed by Oceguera on May 31.
The caucus’ 2009 annual report covering activity during the off-election year shows a similar situation, with nearly $90,000 in payments from Assembly Democrats not included. Again, Oceguera and other Assembly Democrats reported expenses to the caucus that were not reported as contributions on the caucus annual report.
A review of the dates of the 2009 contributions shows that over $17,000 was sent by lawmakers to their caucus during a blackout period when the organization cannot accept contributions.
Members of the Legislature as well as their political caucuses are prohibited from accepting contributions starting 30 days before a regular legislative session to 30 days after the end of a session according to Nevada law.
Oceguera said because the expenses identified by lawmakers are reimbursements, they do not fall under the contribution prohibitions.
Contributions or expenses in excess of $100 must be reported by candidates and caucuses as well as political action committees.
The reporting issues have come up just as candidates are in the final days of the hotly contested 2010 campaign. Assembly Democrats are trying to keep their 28-14 supermajority, while Republicans are seeking enough seats to take away their two-thirds edge.